A month after the sudden death of her husband, renowned soccer journalist Grant Wahl, Dr. Celine Gounder is battling COVID disinformation about how he died.
“There is a business model for this,” Gounder told “CBS Mornings” on Wednesday. “These are people who are trying to make money, who are trying to gain social media followers or Substack newsletter subscribers, who are looking for either social status or power. And they are using stories like that of my husband to profit off of that.”
Gounder made it clear in the Times op-ed that Wahl did not die of a COVID-19 vaccination. She said she was prompted to write the op-ed after “disinformation opportunists” used the same “playbook” to blame Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest during an NFL game last week on COVID vaccines.
“The vaccine disinformation playbook includes the use of fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry-picked data and conspiracy theories. Not a single qualified medical or public health expert has supported the claim that my husband died from Covid vaccination,” she wrote.
Gounder told CBS News she’s been attacked for years because she is “very pro-vaccine.” What surprised her was that they came for Wahl, her husband of 21 years.
“That really made me angry, and under the circumstances, was also really hurtful,” she said. “I just wanted to take a breath and grieve with my family, and I’m not being allowed to do that.”
Wahl, 49, died of an aortic aneurysm, Gounder told CBS News in December during her first interview since his passing. Gounder said Wahl was a “very, very healthy guy” who worked out with a trainer and used a rowing machine a few times a week.
“But at the same time, he had an underlying genetic risk factor we were not aware of,” she said.
Misinformation is misleading or incorrect information, while disinformation is false information that is deliberately spread, according to fact-checking organization Snopes.com.
In her op-ed, Gounder said she learned a few ways to counter disinformation.
“I knew that disinformation purveyors would blame Grant’s death on Covid vaccines, and I knew what tactics they would use to do so. I also knew that debunking what these people believe head-on in public risks giving them the attention they crave and invites further trolling,” she wrote. “But this situation was different from the many others I’d dealt with as an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist or while serving on the Biden-Harris transition Covid Advisory Board. This was my Grant, and I needed to know what had happened to him. And I knew I had to share that information publicly: Pairing facts with empathy is the best way to disempower trolls.”
Gounder said health disinformation continues to spread based on the assumption that people who aren’t unhealthy or elderly can’t die of non-COVID causes.
“What we’re seeing is this pattern of vaccine skeptics who are saying, ‘Oh, look at these young, healthy people, it must be COVID vaccines.’ But that is simply not the case,'” she said.
Gounder said the feedback she’s received since her op-ed has been positive.
“For me, it’s really important that his legacy be protected, that he not get pulled into this anti-vaxxer mess. And I will do whatever I need to do to protect his memory,” she said.
Gounder said she wants Wahl to be remembered as the “kind, generous person” that he was.”
“He was so generous to anybody from a student to a young reporter who was coming up in sports journalism,” she said. “And he used sports journalism as a tool to advance social justice, whether that was for women in soccer and basketball, or for LGBT rights.”